dangers of native ads

Photo credit: Bidtellect

Is it advertising or is it news? Struggling publishers view native advertising as a financial godsend. By publishing sponsored content that appears remarkably like their editorial content, some web publishers are capitalizing on a robust new revenue stream.

The possible dangers are that audiences will feel tricked and annoyed after realizing the post they thought was real news was actually paid content — an ad — causing publishers to lose credibility and readers over the long term, and reflecting badly on the sponsor. 

New survey results show that those dangers are quite real. Many viewers dislike sponsored content. Depending on the publisher hosting the content, some absolutely despise it.

Research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism reveals:

• 1/3 or more of British and American viewers surveyed say they have felt disappointed or deceived after reading an article they later learned was sponsored.

• ½ say they don’t like sponsored content but accept it as part of obtaining free news.

• Over ¼ feel less positively about the news brand because of sponsored content.

• About 1/5 view the brand sponsoring the content more negatively.

That’s a bad sign for PR professionals involved in producing sponsored content.

When Viewers Feel Deceived

Focus groups show that consumers care deeply about trust, truth and accuracy. Unclear disclosures on sponsored content roused strong emotions when consumers felt “deceived” by advertising masquerading as content.

Consumers are confused by the different labels for native advertising, sometimes called paid content, sponsored post or paid post, researchers say. And they don’t read explanatory pages.

“In order to reduce levels of perceived deception, the industry needs to adopt consistent and clear signposting across different sites if all consumers are to have faith in what they are reading,” researchers argue.

The good news for publishers and brands is that viewers are more accepting of native advertising when they know upfront that an advertiser influenced the content. Younger viewers tolerate native ads more, perhaps because they’ve grown up in a commercialized world and tend to visit less serious news sites like BuzzFeed.

Subjects to Avoid in Native Content

Viewers’ opinions vary depending on the subject area. They see news, politics and finance as sacred and believe those topics should be free of sponsored posts. Native ads would damage the credibility of media outlets covering those topics. Current advice urges sponsored content producers to emulate the publisher’s tone and style. That tactic can increase engagement but will backfire when readers realize the post is sponsored.

“Blurring the line between advertising and editorial could harm the credibility of news brands, with little lasting impact on advertisers,” states YouGov Director of Media Research Shaun Austin, who conducted the study. “There is a general consensus that news pages are for news and anything that interferes with this raises doubts among consumers and is potentially very damaging to any news brand that attempts it.”

Acceptable Topics for Sponsored Content

Viewers accept native ads on fashion, travel, lifestyle and motoring websites, perhaps because brands already have high-profiles in those areas. Lifestyle and self-improvement promotions are likely to fare well, but that type of sponsored content can also be placed as earned media. Sponsored content that contains a public service component seems to perform best.

Other findings may be good news for PR. Almost a third of consumers surveyed say they find traditional banner advertising distracting and will avoid sites where ads interfere with content too much. Auto-playing videos and pop-up ads are especially annoying. Consumers dislike advertising so much many have installed ad-blocking software: 39% in the UK and 47% in the US. Figures are even higher for young people.

The public’s active avoidance of online advertising highlights the value of PR and its ability to create and place content.

Bottom Line: New research reveals the extent of consumers’ disdain for sponsored content. Although many say they detest sponsored posts on some websites, feelings vary depending on the topic. Sponsored content that educates and entertains receives the best acceptance and engagement.